Much of 2020 felt rather binary: you’re with us or against us, you visibly support us on social media or you’re complicit, you vote my way or you’re evil. (And 2021 is looking pretty similar on that front so far.)
But two books I’ve recently read argue strongly against binary thinking—when it comes to ethical decision making, we need to consider a wider array of possibilities and human complexities than just “yes” or “no.”
Let’s get to it.
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The Power of Ethics: How to Make Good Choices in a Complicated World by Susan Liautaud
Published: 2021 | Pages: 228
“If we ask a binary question, we get a yes or no answer with little insight into the person’s frame of mind.”
Published just last week, Liautaud’s new book is an easily digestible and highly usable guide for helping the average person make better, more ethical decisions. There’s no getting around the fact that we live in a complex world which is only getting more complex, especially as technology gets more ubiquitous before the law has a chance to catch up.
Instead of just saying yes or no to choices that are presented as black and white, Liautaud urges readers to instead ask “when and under what circumstances” would I . . . delete a social media app over privacy concerns, vote for a candidate whose personal life I disagree with, get into an argument with a loved one about a choice they’ve made, boycott a company, cancel an artist or celebrity, etc.
As she succinctly exhorts: “most decisions we need to make will be non-binary.”
Using a bevy of potent case studies, the reader gets a look at not only where decision making goes wrong, but also, when applicable, how it got corrected and how it could have been handled differently. We get insight into Boeing’s 737 crashes, Lyndon Johnson’s corrupted election into the senate, big tech’s numerous privacy and free speech problems (23andMe, Alexa, Twitter, etc.). These are obviously urgent and relevant questions.
Liautaud then dials it down to more personal ethical considerations — the ethics of curating our social media feeds, how to respond to “alternative facts,” when and how to take the keys away from an elderly parent, and more.
Between the big picture leadership questions about integrity to the very personal day-to-day choices we all make, she covers a lot of ground efficiently and effectively.
Perhaps best of all: For being a book about ethics, it’s far less dense than the kind of reading I was doing in ethics classes at Drake U. The Power of Ethics is a highly readable, narrative-driven book which also gives a helpful and practical framework for better decision-making.
A Few Bookish Questions With Susan Liautaud
1. You mention a particular affinity for presidential biographers Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin (me too!). Why do you think politics, especially at the highest level, are a particularly good lens through which to examine ethics?
These biographers give us an extraordinary reading experience and lens through which to consider historical ethical dilemmas in today’s context. Politics at the highest level requires decision-making that affects people and things (policies, the environment, technology, institutions . . .) globally and for generations to come. The ethics underpinning the decisions have far-reaching consequences, and politicians are responsible for the real-world impact, whether the (in)efficient distribution of vaccines or a military intervention. Political leaders also have outsized ethical responsibility—formally through the oath of office but also due to the power and privilege the office confers. And their decisions are frequently tainted with the inherent conflict that keeping their job hinges on keeping their supporters happy, which may or may not coincide with the most ethical choice.
2. Are there other books/authors—across philosophy, history, fiction—you recommend for examining ethical problems?
There are so many greats—from centuries ago to the present. I still re-read the classic philosophers when I can find time. I was a comparative literature major in college, so I’m a huge fan of fiction. Almost any fictional work gives us an opportunity to deploy our ethics imagination—to try out different situations wearing someone else’s shoes. Non-fiction writers who have (enjoyably!) exposed ethical intricacies from different specialties include: John Carreyou’s Bad Blood (corporate—on Theranos), Joseph S. Nye, Jr.’s Do Morals Matter? (presidential ethics), and David Fromkin A Peace to End All Peace (how historical roots—the Middle East here—have lasting influence on ethics).
3. How do you think reading can help us be more ethical humans and better decision makers?
Reading opens our minds, giving us perspective and helping us lift our gaze and see both our awesome potential and the potential harm we might cause. Great writers remind us what it means to be human and leave us knowing . . . and questioning . . . more about ourselves. So much of ethics stems from our ability to tether decisions to our humanity and to appreciate the power and responsibility we each have with every choice we make. And so much of ethics requires resilience—our ability to bounce back, and help others bounce back, after our inevitable errors.
4. What do you read for fun? Any particular authors or genres you read to relax or for entertainment?
For fun, I love anything to do with martial arts, karate in particular—whether translations of ancient works (Gichin Funakoshi) or the book equivalents of a Bruce Lee movie (although I love the movies too!)! I also love spiritual works and writers. I just enjoyed Pope Francis’ Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. And I’m a real fan of biography even outside of politics.
5. What are you reading and enjoying now? What's next on your list?
I have a terrible habit of reading many different books at once—sometimes slow to finish I must confess. I’m currently reading The Overstory and The Nickel Boys, and I just finished Don DeLillo’s The Silence. For non-fiction I’m finishing up Fareed Zakaria’s Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World and digging into President Obama’s A Promised Land.
Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels by Catherine Sanderson
Published: 2020 | Pages: 209
“Taking small steps in the right direction—or even refusing to take a single step in the wrong direction—can make a big difference.”
Whereas Liautaud’s work on ethics largely focuses on case studies, Sanderson’s book leans on the research about morality, especially as it relates to why good people stand by in the face of wrongdoing.
She starts by seeking to explain why humans engage in bad behavior—and it’s not just because there’s some bad apples among us: “This belief that bad behavior is caused by bad people is reassuring and comforting. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong.”
In learning about these varying factors—the most powerful of which seems to be related to elements of groupthink—we can then have a better idea of what keeps us from helping people in need, from standing up in the face of racist or sexist comments, from confronting unethical behavior in our workplace.
As with The Power of Ethics, I took a lot of notes on this one. Sanderson’s insights into human nature were revealing—a little disheartening at first, but then incredibly hopeful once she got into the practicals of how to train yourself to be a “moral rebel.”
As the author notes, simply being exposed to examples of moral courage can increase our own. The book itself does that by highlighting ordinary people who made choices to be moral rebels, and made a real difference.
Admittedly, when it came to the research overviews, I often skimmed through methodology and data in order to get to the meaty results, but I paid closer attention in the second half when she was providing more concrete examples and tips for counteracting unethical behavior.
Why We Act is a necessary read for parents (especially of high schoolers and college student), educators, and workplace leaders.
That’s all for me this week. I’d love to hear what you’re reading, and any great books about ethical dilemmas that you’d recommend.
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Thanks for the time and inbox space,